When we talk about Asperger’s issues, we sometimes talk about them in terms of things that bother us, things that embarrass us, things that make us uncomfortable… the kind of things that make us feel awkward in the world and make it hard to live our lives freely, feeling like full human beings. Internally, they cause us considerable hardship — and that affects our outward behaviors and “affect”.
But every now and then, there is also the instance where AS traits combine to actually put you in danger.
Things like being too gullible, too innocent, not factoring in social considerations, getting into dangerous situations without even realizing it, falling for tricks and schemes and fraud, as well as making just plain poor decisions because you didn’t think things through or discuss your decisions with anyone else (or even think to discuss them).
Yesterday, I hopped in the back of a car with two complete strangers, and didn’t even think anything of it. I didn’t know them. I’d chatted with them for maybe two or three moments, and they certainly didn’t know me. Under slightly different circumstances, it could have turned out very badly. And I didn’t even realize it till much later in the day.
Here’s how it happened.
I was going for my Sunday morning walk, heading down the road to the local hiking trails. It was a beautiful day – bright and clear and not too warm – and I had my sunglasses and hat on to keep my eyes comfortable. I had my work smartphone with me to take pictures, because I’d been out a few times over the past weeks and had missed some chances at some great shots. I didn’t want that to happen again.
It was early enough that the roads weren’t clogged with runners, walkers, and cyclists, and I felt like I pretty much had the place to myself. There was plenty of shade to protect my eyes, and I felt limber and strong but still a little tired from having done a lot of physical work the day before. I saw a few runners and cyclists, but they sped past me just a word or two. There was no need to interact very much with anyone, which I didn’t care to do.
It looked like I was going to get to the woods without having to talk to anyone.
I had just turned on to the main road leading to the trailhead, when a car approached me, with the passenger window rolled down. I was wary at first, but when the car pulled over to me, it looked like somebody needed help. There were two people in the dark interior, a middle-aged couple – a woman was driving and a man sat in the passenger seat. They seemed nice enough, from the looks of them.
They said they were in search of the very same trail I was headed to. I told them it was very close, but they’d driven past it and we’re headed away from it in the wrong direction. They needed to turn around and go back. The woman behind the wheel seemed very confused and tentative. She asked where it was, and I tried to explain to them both, pointing in the direction they should go, and trying to show them where to turn around, but I was having trouble getting the words out and it was hard to show them in their rear-view mirrors.
If I had been able to get the words together, I could have easily told them how to backtrack and find the entrance to the parking area. But I was having some trouble getting my thoughts and words in place, so after a few minutes of stumbling and fumbling, I said, “It would just be easier if I could just show you.”
“I’m actually going to hike there, myself,” I said matter-of-factly, “so maybe you could give me a ride.” The sun was bothering my eyes, and the 1/4 mile to the trailhead was through the brightest, sunniest stretch I’d walk all day. The idea of getting a ride to shorten my slog seemed sensible. Logical. The most reasonable path to take.
We could kill two birds with one stone. I’d get a ride, and they’d get directions.
The man — husband or boyfriend – said “Oh, sure!” and before the woman could say anything, I hopped in the back seat of the car.
I introduced myself and asked their names. They told me them — can’t remember what they were, now. I asked if they were local, and they told me they were from a town about an hour to the southwest. I had friends in that area, and I told them so.
The woman (or wife) seemed a little startled that a stranger had just climbed into the backseat of her car, and as she coasted down the road at a snail’s pace, she seemed visibly nervous. I gave her directions, which she failed to follow, steering into a nearby ditch and scraping up her car in the process. She got the vehicle turned around — it was very neat and tidy inside, I have to say — but she did a terrible job of it, and we’re lucky there were no other drivers around, or we would have been hit as she pulled a 7-point turn in the middle of the narrow two-lane road.
I didn’t think much of the terrible job she was doing of turning the car around. I just figured she was an awful driver. Both she and her passenger were telling me about how they were going to be meeting friends and family later that day, and I thought it was strange… What did I care about their friends and family? On second thought it seems like that’s the sort of thing that you tell someone if you want them to know that you will be missed if you get kidnapped. Or killed, and your body dumped in a shallow grave somewhere back in the woods. But it didn’t occur to me at all, at the time they were telling me — sounding increasingly nervous, come to think of it.
Eventually the woman did turn her car in the right direction, and it was only maybe a quarter of a mile till she pulled into the parking area at the trailhead. I jumped out of the back, eager to start my walk — and also get free of their company. I thanked them for the ride and told them a little bit about the trails and where they lead in that conservation area.
Oddly, the woman came right over to me and took off her glasses as she talked. Following her lead, I took off my glasses as well. It felt a little strange, almost as though she were trying to get a look at me, for future reference. It almost seemed like she was on the defensive… or something like that. The man in the car stayed there and didn’t say anything. It almost seemed like he was avoiding me.
To be perfectly honest, I really didn’t think much of it, when it was all happening. But as I walked up the trail and went on my way, I felt a little unnerved by the woman’s behavior — both her driving and her manner when we’d reached the woods.
It occurred to me that what I had done was probably not the safest thing. Jumping in a car with a couple of strangers… it was perhaps not the best choice. I had done a quick “eyeball” assessment of these two people, and I had decided that they were both safe to be around, but honestly I had no way of knowing if they were ax murderers, or just regular people.
The same holds true for them and me. They had no idea if I were a regular person, a good-hearted neighbor who was trying to do a good deed – which I was – or if I was a crazy ax murderer type of person who was going to size them up or scope them out or find out information in some other way so I could rob them, kill them, kidnap them, or do something else – the way society kind of conditions us to think people will behave if they are strangers.
Personally, I think that people watch too many movies, and we have too many ideas in our heads about crazy psycho-killers who are on the loose. I think that the majority of people are actually good people and do genuinely want to help. At the same time, just jumping in the back of a car with people you don’t know, whose driving you don’t know, and getting a ride to a place that you can’t guarantee 100% that they’re truly going to, is definitely not the smartest thing in the world.
But it was a classic combination of collective failures in my impulse control, executive function, slow processing speed, as well as a real naïveté around other people’s behavior and intentions. My discomfort about not being able to talk properly combined with my logical thinking about how to most effectively solve their problem made getting in the back of their car seem perfectly logical to me.
And this is where things are a heck of a lot more than just interesting or inconveniencing or anxiety-provoking with Asperger’s. Make no mistake — I’m not minimizing the effects of those things. They’re debilitating. But in cases like this, where my thinking is clearly not working properly — not fast enough, not smoothly enough, not socially enough, and overwhelmingly logistically — it can get downright dangerous.
If I am impulsive and I do not think properly, and I am too gullible with the wrong people, I can actually put myself in threatening situations — and not even realize it till it’s too late to stop things. Personally I think I’ve been luckier than most, a bunch of times It almost seems as though “Someone” has been looking out for me all these years, because I have had some interactions with people who were genuinely unsavory types, or who fit the profile of someone who would do something absolutely horrible when no one is watching, and completely get away with it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done something like this. In college, I would go for long walks down railroad tracks far to the north of the middle of nowhere, hitching a ride with railroad guys who were on one of those hand cars. They gave me a lift to town, and I thought nothing of it… for years.
I have hitchhiked at 3 AM while in college, flagging down cars that I decided need to give me a lift. I have gone for a long 20+ mile bike rides at night with no light on my bike. I have gotten on the back of motorcycles and ridden with people I did not know – one of whom was a terrible driver and made that abundantly clear within minutes of me getting on the back of their bike. I have done a whole bunch of things that I should not have done with people whom I should not have trusted.
That was decades ago, really. And there were even more dire situations I got into — and out of — without suspecting for once that I was in danger. But that was when I was young. A kid. I could be excused, back then.
But now? I’m all grown up now — even on the “downward arc” of my life. There is no way I should be doing that sort of thing. What is wrong with me? It’s such a strange feeling, being a full-fledged adult, old enough to be someone’s grandmother, and seeing myself do this kind of thing. I should know better. I do know better. But I don’t do better.
So, that was my adventure yesterday. Without even realizing it. And today… well, it’s been interesting, to say the least.
More to come…